Sunday, February 14, 2010

prə-nŭn′sē-ā′ shən

Why is "primer" pronounced like "primmer" when associated with elementary texts, but like "pry-mer" for all other applications of the word? This particular oddity of the English language bothers me immensely. While my ears are less sensitive to it than the use of "off-ten", it seems as pretentious. But why?

of·ten (ô′fən, ŏf′ən, ôf′tən, ŏf′-)
Many times; frequently.

[Middle English, alteration (probably influenced by selden, seldom), of oft from Old English; see upo in Indo-European roots.]

: During the 15th century English experienced a widespread lossof certain consonant sounds within consonant clusters, as the (d) in handsome and handkerchief, the (p) in consumption and raspberry, and the (t) in chestnut and often. In this way the consonant clusters were simplified and made easier to articulate. With the rise of public education and literacy and, consequently, people's awareness of spelling in the 19th century, sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the t in often, which is now frequently pronounced. In other similar words, such as soften and listen, the t generally remains silent.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2002, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Well, there goes that theory that "off-ten" is just a pretentious way to pronounce often - still, I can't bring myself to speak it.

Another thing that bothers me regarding pronunciation is that some new dictionaries do not use the standard symbols of phonetic pronunciation. Long "a" is no longer represented by "ā", but by "ay" or some such. When did that happen?

In doing a little research about the phonetic marks of old, I found the mother lode of phonetic information. It's a University of Iowa website called Phonetics: The Sounds of English and Spanish (it has German, too).

It has a cutaway computer model representing the position of the teeth, tongue, and lips for all sounds made, as well as a head-on video of someone's mouth making the same sounds. It's very, very cool.  And I'm giving you fair warning that it's so cool, you may spend hours there, particularly if you are a pronunciation geek.  

Still. I wonder where all my pronunciation keys are from days past. It appears that everything is moving toward the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which is much more comprehensive, but also more complex than the simple pronunciation marks of yesterday.

I guess I was hoping for something more like this:

That's what we called "short A" back in the old days.

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